The Olympics Are Too Damn Difficult

I promised myself I wouldn’t write about the Olympics.  I’ve already done it — many times.  I’ve been cruel and I’ve been kind, and once I was even hipster indifferent.  You see, for a guy who actually remembers Cassius Clay kicking the crap out of Zbigniew Pietrzykowski (yeah, I did have to look up his name) in Rome, there’ve been a lot of Gold Medals under the bridge, and enthusiasm is not an infinite commodity.


The problem is the Olympics have become complicated.


Back in the day, every four years a bunch of kids would get together to play games.  Eventually, one of them would run, jump, throw, skip, swim, sail, hop, bounce or roll further or faster than everybody else, and they’d get a medal.  The band played the national anthem, everybody smiled, gave each other a “good sport” pat on the ass and went home.  The Americans always won, the Soviets and the East Germans always cheated, countries like France and Japan always hung in there for Bronze, and everybody else had a helluva good time.  It was simple, straightforward and you didn’t need an IBM supercomputer to figure out when your particular guy or girl was going for gold.

Fast forward:

It’s Rio 2016 — and I have no idea what’s happening.  I’ve been watching now and again, and nobody seems to be winning anything.  They always have to do it again tomorrow or Wednesday or next week.  Plus, every time I turn the TV on, Michael Phelps and his fat little kid show up.  That guy is the Kim Kardashian of chlorinated water sports, and, BTW, I’m no expert, but I don’t think water actually comes in that colour.  Meanwhile, in another part of la floresta, they’re playing golf.  Golf?  What does “Faster, Higher, Stronger” have to do with golf?  Why not make chess an Olympic event and get it over with?

There are 39 different sports in Rio, and each one of them has several events, and each one of those has qualifying heats, quarter-finals, semi-finals, round robins, square sparrows — God Almighty!  This is insanity!  Table Tennis, little old rainy-day table tennis has 4 events?  Badminton has five?  Fencing has ten?  Diving has eight?  Eight?  How many different ways can you jump in the water?  But for sheer WTF madness. there’s Shooting.  You remember shooting: point the gun at the target and pull the trigger.  Believe it or not, Shooting has 15 events.  Fifteen?  I have no clue what these people are shooting at, but they’re doing it 15 different ways.  Annie Oakley wasn’t that good.

At first glance, Rio 2016 has it all: beautiful young people, tons of money, incredible drugs — all set on the glorious beaches of South America.  It’s a telenovela waiting to happen, but there are too many characters — too many storylines — too many side stories that don’t mean anything and just too damn much stuff to keep track of.

So go in peace, Rio Olympics. I’ll get the medal count when you’re over.

Super Bowl, The Jacksons and Man Boobs

superbowlSunday is Super Bowl Sunday — the game that’s more than a game.  I love the Super Bowl.  I assemble all the “that-stuff-will-kill-you” faux food I can find, chill the sugary beverages, realign my ass groove on the sofa and settle in to watch what usually turns out to be just an average game — because every year the Super Bowl is never as good as the month of playoffs that precede it.  Oh, well!  The Super Bowl is still the biggest sporting event in the world.  Sure, piles more people watch World Cup and the Tour de France or even some cricket championship in India, but that doesn’t matter.  The Super Bowl is Numero Uno, the Big Kahuna*.  The one everybody talks about.  But it wasn’t always that way.  It took a lot of refining to turn an ordinary winner-take-all championship game (which wasn’t even taped the first time) into a worldwide phenomenon where over half the people watching don’t even understand the rules.

The history of the Super Bowl can be divided into four distinct eras.

Squeaky Clean Disney — In the beginning, the Super Bowl wasn’t actually all that super.  It was a championship game but no big deal beyond its domestic fan base – boys to men.  There was lots of advertising, but mainly for the regular man stuff like cars and razorblades and aftershave.  The halftime show was based on the college bowl game model — Disney kids and marching bands.  Every once in a while, a recognizable name got thrown in there, but most fans took the halftime opportunity to go to the bathroom or the fridge for more beer.  That was it, and it stayed that way until 1993 when Michael Jackson showed up.

Michael Jackson and Friends — The news that Michael Jackson would perform at Super Bowl XXVII shot the expected TV ratings through the stratosphere.  Suddenly, everybody wanted their advertising front and centre, and they weren’t about to waste that placement on some lame old commercial.  Unique Super Bowl ads had been around for a while, but Michael turned them into an art form.  And he didn’t disappoint: Super Bowl XXVII was one of the most watched events in television history.

For the next ten years, the Super Bowl halftime show read like a Who’s Who from Billboard — Tony Bennett, Britney Spears, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins etc. etc.  Even U2 did a solo concert!  The domestic TV audience began reaching for 100 million, and worldwide it went off the charts.  Ads became bolder, flashier and funnier as modern Mad Men went after this audience.  In 2003, The Dixie Chicks sang the National Anthem, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers knocked the snot out of the Raiders 48-21, and Shania Twain and Sting entertained everybody in sight.  Market share and ad revenues were the largest in history.  All was well with the world — or so it seemed.

Janet Jackson and “Man Boobs” — In 2004, Super Bowl XXXVIII threatened to be a complete snooze.  New England was clearly a better team than Carolina.  And the halftime show featured Janet Jackson, the aging sister of a spooky superstar, and Justin Timberlake, the lead singer of the non-threatening boy band ‘N Sync.  However, as Gomer Pyle used to say; “Surprise! Surprise! Surprise!”  Not only did the game turn into one of the best in history, but Janet and Justin put on a bit of a show themselves.  Does the term “wardrobe malfunction” mean anything to you?  Janet and Justin’s halftime presentation of Janet’s 38-year-old breast shocked a lot of people and scared the crap out of the NFL, CBS and the American federal government.  Family entertainment had been assaulted; those two crazy kids had put billions of ad dollars in jeopardy.  OOPS!  The boys down at Super Bowl Central needed to fix things without going back to boring old “squeaky clean Disney,” but which contemporary entertainer could they trust?  Hip Hop?  Rappers?  Not a chance!  They came up with a brilliant solution – man boobs!  They got male entertainers so old they wouldn’t dare take their clothes off!

For the next six years, Super Bowl fans were subjected to some of the greatest names in Geriatric Rock.  The list is impressive: from Paul McCartney (who was born two years before D Day) to The Who (where half the original band was already dead.)  Even Prince, the youngest of the crowd, was pushing fifty so hard he could see the pension plan from there.  Combine that with Springsteen, The Stones and Tom Petty, and it looked like the nursing homes of Cleveland were having a 2-for-1 sale. But here’s the deal.  It worked!  The audience grew.  It’s amazing how nostalgia and half-naked Go Daddy ads can prop up a mediocre sporting event.  Then Madonna came along.

Safe Sex —  Madonna may have been everybody’s bad girl at some point, but in 2012, chances were good she’d at least keep her clothes on.  After all, she was old enough to be Tom Brady’s m-m-m — older sister.  Unfortunately, nobody vouched for M.I.A., Madonna’s on-stage buddy, who gave over a billion people the finger during, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.”  This time, the NFL went through the roof and sued M.I.A. for something in the neighbourhood of 16 million dollars.  Ouch!

These days, the Super Bowl halftime show might show a lot of skin and have a few suggestive gestures, but with the NFL lawyers standing guard, it pretty much sticks to the safe sex of Bruno Mars and Katy Perry dancing with awkward sharks.  Even Beyonce kept it clean enough to get invited back.  And this is the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future.

*Just to show you what a big deal the Super Bowl is, notice I didn’t mention “football” once!

Hockey’s Back: The Fans Have Spoken!

IMG_00000061As most of you are probably unaware, the National Hockey League of North America was in a labour dispute for nearly half of this season.  You’re unaware of this because ice hockey fans are far more devoted than they are numerous.  The very nature of hockey dictates that it’s a regional sport.  In order to play the game properly, you need large sheets of uninterrupted ice.  Since most of our planet — outside of Canada and Russia — isn’t frozen for half the calendar year, hockey has never caught on worldwide.  Besides, like tennis, jai alai and Grand Prix auto racing, hockey is an affluent sport.  Children, in a playground, don’t spontaneously play hockey.  The game needs some forethought.  One needs equipment: skates, sticks, pucks, body armour and, of course, that sheet of uninterrupted ice.  In reality (despite the myth of the backyard rink) if you’re not middle class and above, you’re not playing hockey.  Of course, none of this is important, now, because the labour dispute has been settled and the world’s finest professional ice hockey league is back in business.

So, what’s the big deal, you might ask?  Of the seven or so billion people on this planet, at a conservative guess, six billion of them couldn’t care less whether it’s game on or puck off in the National Hockey League.  This is true, but the recent labour dispute and its resolution gives us an unique insight into a part of the human experience – the sports fan.

Police_VersoJust a little background.  Humans have always had professional sports.  It was probably SRO at the Roman Coliseum during Slaughtermania IV in the 2nd century.  However, the only reason the Flavians could pack them in, back in the day, was they had a product to sell – in this case, mass homicide – and people who wanted to buy it.  Flash forward two thousand years, and we still have guys like Ronaldo, Lebron James and Joe Flacco who spend most evenings and weekends playing with their balls because tons of people are willing to pony-up unholy amounts of money to see them do it.  Professional sports have always been dependent on the fans (incidentally, the word “fan” is a diminutive of fanatic) and that includes hockey.

There was one telling feature of the recent hockey league labour dispute, though.  Even as the billionaire owners were fighting it out with their millionaire employees to see who gets the lion’s share of the fan’s folding money, the fans (those same faceless nobodies who pay the bills) were treated like crap.  Both sides made a show of being crocodile tear sorry for shutting down the league, but everybody knew neither side was all that sincere, including (there are those folks, again) the fans.  In fact, every word I read, saw or listened to during the entire dispute that even mentioned the fans (there weren’t that many) essentially said they were getting screwed – again.  My point is nobody (owners, players, the media or Marge the traffic cop) made any attempt at disguising the fact that the National Hockey League and its employees didn’t give a rat’s left buttock for fan loyalty, fraternity or any of the other “tys” they so proudly expound.

Fast forward to the end of the lock-out.  Gary Bettman, Commissioner of theIMG_00000060 NHL, walked up to the microphone and said, “Sorry!” and that was supposed to make it all right.  Ready for a shock?  It did!  Less than a week later, every pennant-waving, jersey-wearing, overpriced-beer buying, “I’ve just been treated like dirt” hockey fan was back at it, as if nothing had ever happened.

I know there are thousands of people sitting in classroom all over the world right now, studying sociology and the behaviour of groups.  Save your money, folks: it’s obvious human groups are stupid.  It would have taken exactly one hockey game with zero attendance to scare the National Hockey League into treating their fans properly — three hours of silence, after four months of getting pooped on.  Not a bad use of the fan’s enormous purchasing power; unfortunately, nobody even considered it.  Instead, hockey fans all over the continent were literally standing in line to start shelling out their coin again.  This proves, beyond all argument, that in groups of more than a dozen, sports fans haven’t got a brain cell among them.  I suppose that’s why they’re called fan-atics.